I would sit for hours watching Harriet II dog-ear leaves of encyclopedias and history books without interruption. I appreciated much of what I saw sitting at the kitchen table which contrasted sharply with the linoleum floor. I would practice writing rows of the alphabet on drawing paper, while she wrote by hand the book that she would never publish.
I was rarely away from her. I was even beginning to recognize the words she spoke by watching the world around me. “Niggas have been walking around here for generations believing that slavery was abolished,” she would say. “The white ruling class are symbolists. They’ve never hid the truth from us. The Great Seal of the United States stands for something evil. It’s a representation of ancient civilizations in modern times. It’s letting the Negro know that we’ve never been free. Nobody black or dark will ever be free under the white system- that’s why that damned eagle is clutching those rods so tightly. It’s the worst kind of slavery, it’s a mental bondage. You’ve got to clip that claw to free your mind. And the only way you can do that is through knowledge.”
That year, several young black sisters and brothers would seek out ‘knowledge’ from my grandmother. They called her Harriet II, after Harriet Tubman. They would spend hours sitting in her immaculate kitchen discussing social and racial problems, as if they were in a schoolroom.
“I don’t believe violence is our answer,” one of the brothers said.
“Neither do I,” replied another.
“Well, I do!”
“Man, our people have marched in peace, talked in peace, and they sure got peace- six feet under. You can talk nice to those whites, asking for jobs and decent places to live- they don’t hear you. That’s the reason I riot with the others. Nobody better get in my way either. I’m tired of being deceived by the whites. I’m for rioting, violence, and any other thing like that you can think of.”
“What has violence solved?”
“Listen, man, I’m not trying to solve the blacks’ problems, I can’t. You can’t. And nobody else can. The kind of problems we got you’d have to change whites’ heart- we can’t do that ’cause they don’t have any.”
“Listen-” stated a brother dressed in black leather and a black turban.
“I’m not listening to none of your peace speeches. Like Harriet II says, the black race has been told that the Thirteenth Amendment freed the Negro in 1865, yet, our race has suffered many atrocities since. I’m going to get what I can, how I can, when I can, while I can.”
“By any means necessary?”
“Look, man, I live with my mother and five brothers in a three room apartment- that’s what the landlord calls it. The rats give a soul party every night and invite the roaches, and they all come. We seldom have enough food- a taste of this, a dab of that, sometimes we don’t have shit at all. And on those real hard days, the only food I eat is in my dreams.”
“Brother, do you believe there are some good whites?”
“I certainly do. When they’re lying in a quilted box waiting to be put in the ground. The deeper they put them, the more likable they are. Have you read their history? They took this land from the Indians and called them savages. They’re the savages. The Indians were in their own country minding their own business. They stole blacks out of Africa. If the white man gave back all the stuff they stole, they wouldn’t have nothing.”
My grandmother, who sat at the kitchen table with them, slowly looked up from her reading toward the young men and women she considered her sons and daughters. Then she said, “I will tell you the truth.”
“Okay, Harriet II,” the militant brother said, while reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a dollar bill and sat it face down in front of her. ” You break this down to me, what’s the purpose of the Great Seal, what does it mean? ”
“It informs and instructs politicians of their duties and obligations to the white race.”
“The slaves were regarded in the Constitution as chattel, livestock, property. They were not included in the words people or citizens.”
“I’m diggin’ that.”
“An arrow is a rod with a sharp head. A rod in biblical use is stock or race- like the rod of Isaiah. A sharp head is the symbol of high intelligence- the ability to reason and understand.”
“On the American Seal there are thirteen arrows, whose rods are made from ebony wood. Ebony wood is either black or dark. The wood is a symbol of the black race.”
“And the eagle?”
“The eagle is a bird of prey. He is large and strong. His vision is very sharp, and his wings are powerful. The representation of the eagle is the symbol of the United States. The nature of the United States is like unto the eagle. The government is a flesh eating nation, whose sustenance comes from the African Americans and other dark people.
“The eagle on the American Seal has clutched in his claws thirteen arrows- thirteen for colonialism or white supremacy. The rods of the arrows are made from ebony. Ebony wood- black, dark. The rods represent the race of people that the United States is holding in bondage. Rods mean race- stock, lineage. The sharp heads that form the arrows are the symbol of black Americans and other dark people of high intelligence.
“The black, the Negro, is trying to break the eagle’s hold on them. The pressure has become so great, that they cannot tolerate these oppressive conditions any longer. Now, we have to begin to realize that something has a hold on us. The riots are the way we are trying to break this flesh eating nation’s grip on us. ”
“I’ll be damned. ”
“What about the pyramid?” the turbaned man asked. “What do the words mean?”
“America was built off the backs of slaves, that’s what the pyramid represents- labor. And the Latin words above the eye mean, ‘It favors our undertaking.’ The Roman numerals are a date- 1776. And the words below it stand for, ‘ A new series of ages ‘- which symbolize the beginning of a new era.”
“Now it’s the era of the black man. They know we’re rising,” said the militant. “That’s why they’re trying to keep our asses clutched.”
“Why is the tree branch in that eagle’s other claw?”
“It’s the olive branch. They say it means peace, but it means something entirely different. It’s the symbol of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, the Greeks called this goddess Athena. By that, they’re letting a nigga know that they’ve got our minds. They’ve got us right where they want us. It’s the knowledge that will free you, not violence.”
My fear was percussion. My heart was lurching and slamming a low, deep sound as it struck my rib cage like the hitting of a hammer against a drum the moment I’d asked my grandmother if she was a half-breed. “I’m black!” Her words had the power of Ali’s blow. “My hair and my features look this way because I was born this way.”
The memories still swordplay in my mind, memories of the days my grandmother spent at the kitchen table throwing judgments at the ‘white world’ like stones, and taking issue with anyone who had the courage to point out that she belonged to more than one people. “Mixed-race.” I loved to secretly say the bad M-word. “Mixed,” I’d say, into cupped hands when I thought my grandmother wasn’t listening. Once she overheard me, and hit me.
“Don’t you ever say it,” she shouted. “That’s a really bad word.” Was it bad? Was being mixed a limitation? At the time I didn’t have the answers, but now I know it’s a lot of things. It’s something you can’t be afraid of.
Guilt pricked my conscience every time I looked at my grandmother- sharp point, sharp pain- like a thorn, because I wanted to go back to the moment she’d crossed the borderland between Cherokee and Negro. I wanted to understand why she had to be one or the other. “What color is love?” I asked her. I had been watching a television commercial; the people in it were swaying and singing: ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony . . . I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company . . . that’s the song I sing . . .’ They reminded me of my great-grandparents’ flower garden- many different colors, but all still flowers.
“Black.” Her voice yanked me out of my reverie like the strong arm of a man. “And don’t you forget it.”
I believed that the soreness, the blood in my underpants, was my heart bleeding, pouring down from inside me. If I bled enough I would have no pain left, and when the pain was gone, the burning would cease. I sat with my body bent forward on the toilet seat with my face in my hands, while my grandmother poured cool water between my legs. She was standing behind me, with one arm wrapped around my body like a tangle drawn tight. Indissoluble shroud knot. Binding stone love. She was gently rubbing her hand which smelled of bleach over my bare upper arm, as if to dispel a chill.
“I can’t . . . It burns.” I felt as if I’d choked on my own breath when I said the words.
“It’s not coming.”
The word caught hold of the pain, a metal hook, twisting itself into the core of me like wool fibers into yarn. Something inside of me was still burning, live coals, a raging flame, as urine flowed slowly in a thin stream from my body. Mentally I was in a sunken place where water and filth collected.
I had been molested by Bane, one of the militant brothers who’d moved in with us. His unshaven face was dominated by strong, heavy features. The area just below the rim of his eyelid, near the inner corner would become fleshy and swell up when he smiled at me. That’s how I would know he wanted to hurt me.
“She has an infection from the liquid soap I pour in her bath water,” my grandmother said, by way of explanation to my mother, Nora. ” She won’t take a bath unless she has bubbles.”
Neither one of them wanted me to see a doctor. My mother said that it was my grandmother’s fault for putting detergent in my bath water in large amounts. Around and around Grandma would move her hand in the soapy water, pretending to make me a car so I would climb into the tub. One day, as I played happily with my doll, Brown Baby, covering her curly head with suds, laying her back and watching her eyes close, I could hear them talking outside the bathroom door.
“Do you leave her alone with all of the men you have running in and out of here?” Nora said.
“Precious Flower knows she’s not allowed upstairs alone.” My grandmother couldn’t stand the name Agni, which was given to me in fun or affection by Nora.
At night I would sleep with a mallet under my Raggedy Ann blanket. I tried to find safety from the constant threat of molestation in the high-ceilinged parlor of my family’s Victorian home; it served as both my bedroom and a storage place. I cloaked my fear with all that was contained in the dark-patterned walls that smothered, held back, suppressed memories of abuse like 400 pounds of earth. I was shut up, partitioned with supplies for black revolution- rows of bookshelves lined with books and milk crates filled with weapons and chemicals for making bombs.
I would often pretend that I was in a world that used charms and spells to work miracles. Nora always told me that my feet twisted out like Mary Poppins, so I begged her for a pair of shoes just like the ones Julie Andrews wore in the movie. She gave me a carpet bag, and a pair of black Edwardian shoes that looked more like boots. I slid my small feet into the shoes that belonged to my maternal great, great grandmother, Lili, wanting to walk the distance of her lifetime, wishing I had known her as I put the strings around the hooks, pulling the edges together, while humming the tune ‘A Spoonful of Sugar.’ But in those days, my Alice-in-Wonderland world of make-believe would often fade away, leaving only fear, pain and the sound and fury of revolution.
My grandmother’s kitchen meetings began consuming most of her days and nights, she seldom took notice of me anymore. She believed that black America was in a desperate need of a new black leader. Since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the black race continued to move backwards. Much pressure was being put upon the people, and there was no effective spokesman to help relieve the condition of trouble, strain that kept the black man down in the world. She said that blacks missed out on leadership when they tried to walk in King’s footsteps, that it did nothing but move us into reverse. She felt that black preachers were going through the motions of leadership- that it couldn’t be done under Christianity. “Reverend King rose to the highest point under the Christian religion,” she would declare.
“The ruling class keeps the black man down by the unjust use of authority.” My grandmother offered refreshments to the black Muslim group that sat huddled together around the kitchen table as if she were the voice of their conscience. “I believe in the revolution of truth against falsehood. I believe that the demolition of the society can be and will be brought about with the unveiling of truth. Crime in our communities was developed by the government in order to keep slavery intact. The Thirteenth Article of the Constitution freed us from one hand, but put a strong hold on us with the other. This article was designed to conceal the continuation of black slavery. The public schools are so much infected with the criminal disease, that the educational system is gravely ill, almost gone. Our neighborhoods are laden with crime. We’re destroying our own race for the non-black ruling class. A physical war will not free us. Education is the medicine needed to heal the oppressed people in our communities.”
One warm evening, at bedtime, I sat cross-legged on top of my great-grandfather’s hospital bed, thumbing through a beauty magazine Nora had bought. I twirled the braids that reached below my waist around my finger, while I stared at a blond woman in a cosmetic advertisement. I lightly traced her one-of-a-kind Scandinavian looking features with my fingers, as if I were following a path or course leading me to what I wanted to become. Caucasoid. My fingers were sticky with the sweet of chocolate candy, which stained, smeared her white face. I licked them and rubbed hard against the brownish colored spots that tainted her beauty, as if trying to rub out, wipe clean blackness from a blackboard.
The door stood ajar, and I could hear muffled sounds of revolution coming from the kitchen- rhetoric that was hidden, protected by the heavy shutters of in-group secrecy. “The Constitution is a political bible that does not include the Negro under its umbrella of laws,” said my grandmother. “The word ‘We’ in the Preamble of the Constitution designates or points out the European people as the human race. Every evil that is known to mankind- its seeds have been planted and cultivated in the black community, and it is constitutional.”
Later that evening, Bane had come into the room, he was smiling, no, laughing and grinning, and when he said, “You know what happens to bad little girls?”- he had his gaze fixed on my arm, tugging it forward, saying, “Come here girl, don’t you fight me!” He pulled me into his arms and clung to me, hard at first, then gentle, as he brushed his full lips against mine. His skin was sticky with sweat and foul. I drew back from his smell. I suppose that’s when I felt the heat from his cigarette scorching my skin, not once, but three times, as if he was burning holes in my arm.
When my grandmother heard the howl of my screams, she came running, breathing hard. “What is she doing in here?” she said, catching her breath.
Still holding me, Bane turned toward the doorway. “She was running down the hall,” he said. “She ran straight into my cigarette.” He stood in front of her with his head hanging, not looking at my grandmother, but at me. “I shouldn’t have lit the damn thing,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I’m crazy.”
“Give her to me,” she said, and pulled me away from him. She cradled me, rocking me back and forth like a baby, pressing me close to her body. “Oh, go on, Bane!” she hissed, when he tried to stroke my head. “I don’t think this child can hear,” she said, over my screams. She bounced me in her arms, while he wiped my face with his rough fingers. Grandma leaned over and kissed me, her breath warmed my cheek; shrinking back from the rank odor of urine that soaked my pants, she walked across the room to sit with me in the rocking chair. She ran her fingers over the swell of the burns, as if to remove from memory, close out the sight of my injury- like a curtain drawn over a window to keep a room dark.
“You don’t listen,” she said to me. “I told you not to come in here, but you don’t mind a word I say. You’re just hardheaded. Why can’t you mind?” she thundered threw my high-pitched screams. “Here, take her,” she said to Bane. He stood still and silent with his back to the door, lighting another cigarette. “I’ve got to go get some ice.”
He listened for the sound of her footsteps on the kitchen floor, then he swung me in the air, playfully at first, then hard and fast, straight into the wall. The hard hit threw my head back so severe, that it felt like it had disconnected from my body. I was flung into a panic, my small, bare feet struck the air, while my screams tottered like a seesaw- ascending and falling.
I could hear my cat, Mitzi, whimpering. He finally laid me down on the floor and left me there, like a castaway. I closed my eyes until I heard my grandmother come back into the room. She placed a bag of ice on my arm, and handed me a grape soda; I drank the entire bottle. Although she could smell the stench from my underpants, she sat me on her lap and listened to the low, broken sounds of my cry, while nursing my wounds.
I have always known that her love was thick and bitter; it would bend without breaking, it was difficult, hard, and could injure slightly, like roses touched by the frost. But, never had I known that it could be so easily recognized; I wasn’t aware of what the body remembered until she twisted the bandage around my arm too tight. I could feel the hardness of her love; it caused pain like the sun in my eyes.
Every strand of my grandmother’s long, straight, black hair stayed hid, gathered up in the folds of the white scarves she wore- not because of a set of beliefs that guided her, but because it would make known what was to be hidden or secret: her Cherokee heritage. My grandmother was born with dark skin. Her sisters only had a touch of the tar brush; they were all light-skinned, an inheritance from their Cherokee father. Their mother’s mother was Somalian. She was a concubine. My great-grandmother was unusually tall, heavyset, and dark-skinned with the long, elegant neck of her East African mother. Yet my great-grandfather was much smaller than most men, but he had omnipotent black eyes that reflected light like the moon mirrors a lake. He would coat his hair with Vaseline to conceal its flowing texture, so that he looked more like a high-yellow black man, than the aborigines of America.
I didn’t trust anyone except my grandmother, and even then I had to wonder. She was always a mystery to me, and she knew it. Our relationship saw many changes because her meetings consumed most of the days, exhausting her patience. I didn’t have any notion of what was meant in the book in which her notes were kept, or from what I’d heard. I could not put into words her sometimes long and tiresome lectures. I began to take my first experimental steps as a revolutionist by recording the events in a diary, in which I substituted words or phrases by means of pictures, to try to make clear, or give meaning to her orations that held fast an audience or class as if by a spell. I would sometimes wedge myself in between the narrow space that separated the trash compactor from the kitchen wall, hoping that she’d use it as much as she’d used the vacuum cleaner. Occasionally, it held my attention more than her lectures. I was always delighted by how firmly packed together a bag of trash would be, after having been overpowered by the loud pressure or pushing force of the machines working parts.
I would become troubled by some of the things I’d hear, and would be wide-awake, watchful during my usual hours of sleep, ready for danger. I imagined Scandinavian pirates coming to raid our house and haul my grandmother away on a Viking ship, straight into the bowels of the earth, as if they were the angels of death. I sensed that she might be killed for speaking or writing in support of an uprising against the government. She wanted to be a martyr- like X or King. She’d spent her life taking part in crusades against the corrupt social system. She wanted complete change, and she was willing to suffer or die rather than give up her beliefs. She didn’t know when her death would come, where it would occur, or who would kill her, but she believed that she was a black Moses, that her life was a supreme sacrifice, and that she would be rewarded with the spiritual honor of beholding the face of Allah. I would picture in my mind her lying in the ground facing the Muslim holy city, Mecca. Others around me would be standing over her wrapped body, but I would be on my knees with my face as near to her as possible, whispering verses from the Holy Qur’an, reminding her of the questions the angels of death would ask.
One day, I watched my grandmother walk into my great-grandfather’s bedroom as if she were crossing the distance between life and death- a slow, halting pace. She looked as if she felt warm, she was perspiring and breathing heavily. I watched her push the white scarf from her head as she opened the window. Standing with her back to the window, she pushed back some loose hair from her face, readjusting the scarf over her bowed head, then she looked up at me resting on my great-grandfather’s bed, with my head tilted toward her. She mopped her sweating brow with the sleeve of her tunic, and spoke in a low voice. “Get. Get to your own bed.”
“Grandma! Oh, Grandma!” I shouted, straining my voice so much that it probably could have stirred into motion a hive of bees. “I wanna be white, just like my best friend, Indigo.”
She was looking at me as if I had lost my mind. She was grabbing me wildly. The corners of her thin lips were turned down. “Hush up, you little fool! You don’t have to yell at the top of your lungs when you speak. Come on, Daddy wants to go to bed. And for heaven’s sake don’t start running your mouth now, it’s too damn late.”
I sat up with difficulty. “But, I wanna be like the handicap girl at school,” I said, dragging myself from the mattress, which smelled faintly of tobacco smoke from Grandpa’s pipe, and the sickroom odor of a nursing home. I lazily made my way toward the door, my tired eyes half-closed.
“You are handicapped. You’re black.”
She went about her pace slowly, adjusting pillows, folding blankets, picking up the white paper wings I’d made that had fallen to the floor with a rhythm, a motif that only wings could make. She kicked my scuffed saddle shoes under my great-grandfather’s bed. As I stumbled along beside her, the thought that came to me was: I want to brush out her hair. I wanted to carefully draw the brush through the fine strands until they produced the sharp, snapping sounds of static. I longed to stroke the tangles gently with the brush, until her hair shone like love from her face in the mornings.
She interrupted my thought. “Get now.”
“Shh.” She grabbed my hand, holding it to my face. “Look, you were born this way and you’ll die this way. You can’t change who you are.”
“Gra-Gra-Grandma!” I wailed, my baby plump face twisting hideously as she yanked my arm.
“Shut up, before I snatch a knot in you!” She was jerking me with one hand, and thrusting a finger in my face with the other hand. ” It’s your ignorant mother’s fault for always talking about how pretty them little white girls are.”
“Then I want a midget.” Neptune’s sea-nymphs were trying to provoke me to more salt tears, but I held back the heavy waves of the Red Sea behind shut eyelids. I wasn’t going to let myself cry again, even as my grandmother’s finger jabbed at my cheek as if she were trying to poke a hole in it.
“Well, you can’t have one!” I pulled my arm from her grip so hard that the jerk threw my head back. I turned and ran across the room, saying that I was going to disappear like the dinosaurs did millions of years ago, as I tried to slide under my great-grandfather’s bed, where my saddle shoes were.
She came after me like a thunder of stampeding cattle. “If you don’t shut that big mouth of yours, I will beat the cowboy hell out of you . . . shut up! . . . deah God, please shut up.” I could see the scorn in her eyes as she forced me to my feet. She put me down on the rocking chair that sat next to the bed, and she went back to tidying up the room, while chanting the first chapter of the Holy Qur’an, sura Fatiha. Then she started the 112th sura, which was my favorite, so I joined in with her. When playing hide-and-go-seek with my cousins, instead of counting, I would say the 112th sura. Over and over I recited the Arabic verses with my grandmother. I prayed for the world. I prayed for my family. I prayed for myself.
I sat trapped in a corner between the bed and the lampstand. My great-grandfather appeared in the doorway, leaning on his cane. He looked somewhat recovered from his hip injury; it was the first time in months that I’d seen him up and about by himself. Most of the time he stayed confined to his bed, more from deepening despair than by poor health. He laid entwined in the filthy sheets that he’d kept on his bed for a year. Sometimes when I’d walk pass his bedroom door, I could hear the sound of his voice. He seemed to be talking and laughing to himself, but once and a while, I could hear his sobs, hidden, protected, deadened, by the sheets he’d wrapped his body in, covering closely his grief with the smell of Great-Grandma’s illness.
There was something about his love for her that made my body shudder. What was my understanding of the silent poem between them? What was the meaning of the words behind the unspoken thoughts and deep feelings too intense for ordinary speech? I didn’t know, but I knew I wanted to be loved that way. I watched Great-Grandma die in his arms. He’d held her tight in the rocking chair that I was sitting in; he held her like she was some sacred part of him enshrined in his soul. Two people not like one, but one. He was her strength; she was his light. He had a love for her that was so maddening, so haunting, that it lied in state inside him, like her dead body in his arms. He grieved as if neither God nor Satan could claim his soul; only she could. She was all that mattered, others in his life were but a living frame for him. I remembered the day of her death clearly. Having little strength, she was able to lift her head from his shoulder for a brief moment, gazing first at my plump round face with weak eyes, and then at my grandmother, and my mother, she was smiling her half-smile that my own smile resembled, and said, “My daughters, I will love you always- in the grave, at the resurrection, and in paradise . . . forever.”
My great-grandfather had always been thin from constant fasting. His face looked fuller, his skin was no longer pale, but a beaming reddish-brown. He had put on some weight, but it wasn’t much. In the past, I’d seen my grandmother fixing only soup and steamed vegetables for his meals, and for a snack, he would occasionally have Spanish nuts, Swiss cheese, or Reese’s cup. He wanted to die. He talked repeatedly of dying. He believed life stood between him and Great-Grandma like a locked door. He took in my grandmother changing the sheets on his bed, fine bits of thread, fluff from the cloth floated in the air, settling on surfaces like dust or ashes. Then his eyes moved from her, to where I sat, in the rocking chair, watching the spirals of smoke that kept growing larger and smaller come from his pipe.
“I told you to leave those sheets alone,” he said, and nodded for me to get out of the rocker, as if he thought he wife’s spirit rested in it. I did as I was told, and walked slowly across the room staring up at him. I stood silent beside him. I breathed in his odor of sweat and tobacco, as he watched me take off my socks and fold them up, like my grandmother was doing with the dirty white bed sheets. I pulled the handkerchief from the pocket of his overalls, and made layers of eight folds with it.
My grandmother shook her head slowly from side to side, keeping her gaze fixed in determination, as if in concrete, on the sheets she was folding. “I thought I could handle that boneyard love you’ve got for Mama- that mournful, lie in state love, that needs to be put six feet under. I’ve lived too many years in that pit; it makes me shiver to watch you doing it too, to know that you’ve spent the past year sleeping on these disgusting sheets!” The sea-nymphs sweet singing was trying to lure my great-grandfather to his death, but my grandmother’s cries were drowning out the harmony of the sirens.
She turned her head slow towards him, and said, ” You don’t need to worry about Mama. Allah is taking care of her now.”
“Not worry?” he said.
“She’s not coming back, Daddy.”
“She never left. She’s here . . . she’s here right now,” he said, pointing his cane with a shaky hand towards the rocking chair. “She’s standing right behind her rocker.”
My grandmother sighed, and looked in the direction of the rocker, then she lifted her gaze to the ceiling and clasped her hands.
“What are you doing?” he said, rather rudely. “Have you never seen a spirit? Right there . . . she’s standing right by that damn chair; one foot behind the other. She’s not fat anymore, she’s skinny, almost bony. And she’s dressed in beautiful green silk, wearing those antique silver bracelets I gave her for our fiftieth wedding anniversary.”
“Stop! Just stop!” There were tears in my grandmother’s eyes, as she trembled. “Why can’t you . . . why can’t you let her go?” Her voice was shaking as she spoke. She had shut herself up from the pain of losing her mother for a year- running, running away, but it caught her, rolled her, twisted her, threw her face down into its gaping depths, where she lie like a dead body.
“Daddy, that’s nothing but a shadow on the wall!” She was crouching down on her knees, her tear stained face wallowing in the filth of the sheets she’d folded, with her arms placed stiffly across the naked mattress, hands still clasped tightly.
I moved slowly towards her, wary, and hastened as she let out a scream that could wake the dead. “Don’t cry, Grandma, will you, don’t cry.” I wiped away the tears that wet her face with a gentle touch; my hand touching her mouth, it was a sacred moment to me, as if our relationship suddenly had a deeper and stronger meaning than before. “How’d you like to go outside in the garden for some air? You could sit under the grapevine and watch me ride my tricycle. It’s so pretty out there, we’ve got roses!”
“It’s too late to ride your tricycle,” she said, as I slid my hand across her cheek and into her mouth by accident. I pried open her clenched fists with the small fingers of my hands, outspreading them like branches of a tree. Grandpa watched with ancient eyes, his nose sticking out keen, erect, as he sucked his pipe hard.
My grandmother gathered up the sheets that she had bowed-down on, and sainted with her tears. As she moved toward the door, she walked with stiff steps as if she was weighted down, laden with mammoth size grief, that leaned over her, breathed down on her. Laden with mingled feelings that belonged to me, and Grandpa, feelings that joined with her own.
She stopped for a moment at the door, turned her head to look at me, her dark, heavily-lashed eyes embraced me like a pair of arms holding me so close. I gave her a half-smile, just like the one Great-Grandma used to, then she carefully unfolded the sheets, and wrapped them around her body like a shroud, and stood quite still. I thought of the women I’d seen in purdah. She looked as if she was going to begin speaking the tongue. She could preach words that were as powerful as the wind tearing up trees by their roots; leaving scars wide open, like gaping wounds- words of ordinary days and common things- words that make us deserve what we earn. The welcomed and unwelcomed words, like those at the end of a book- manifestoes that could heal an affliction and bring one close to freedom. But some called her words ‘hate teaching.’ I knew both sides of her.
Dear reader, I am Scheherazade telling one more tale after the thousandth, please bare with me, what I am hiding deep inside, I want to bring out into the light. That night, I was on my knees, holding onto the side rail of my great-grandfather’s hospital bed. My grandmother was looking down at me while she talked, with her back toward my great-grandfather like a stone wall, as if she was shutting something in that she didn’t want him to see. I was shaking my head, trying to keep my mind on the garden. In my mind’s eye I waited for Indigo under the shadow of the peach tree, that was the seed of so many of my great-grandmother’s peach cobblers; I pictured Indigo wearing saddle shoes in the wet grass, just like me.
My grandmother was studying me as my great-grandfather went on talking without stopping. I heard her whisper my name, “Precious Flower,” like a prayer. My great-grandfather hit his cane against the side rail of the hospital bed, two sharp knocks signaled me to get in an upright position. I rose to my feet, and said that I felt like I was riding on a merry-go-round, my head was whirling, a spinning feeling that made me lose my balance. My suspenders were cutting into my shoulders, and I was hunched over the bed catching my breath with effort, as if I were breathing puffs from Grandpa’s pipe and blowing out into a smoke screen of air. And for the first time I could see that I was already like them, too familiar with the atmosphere of grief. We were carriers bringing more sadness into the world. Unlikely scenarios- like the too loud noise of universes colliding.
I thought of Indigo and how she almost died at birth from lack of oxygen. One day I said to her, “When I’m sad, I feel like I have broken wings that do not allow me to fly.”
“When you are unhappy, try as hard as you can to think of me,” she said. “And I will come to you and loan you my wings.” That night, I pretended that I was stealing away, with the help and support of someone else’s strength, with Indigo.
I wore the same pair of shoes for five years. Shoes that belonged to my mother, Nora, shoes that offered the comfort and support I wished she’d given me- yet I hated my dependency on them. To start with, they had been used, by her. I could feel the impressions her feet left behind when I’d walk. They’d been too little for her, and she wore them, as she had always done with things too small. She had stretched them so badly that the seams were coming loose, but I kept them anyway- even when the holes became too noticeable, the soles made that flapping sound when I walked. I wore them until they nearly fell apart. I believed that the simple, worn-out shoes were helping me wend my way. I had the fixed idea that that was the purpose of shoes. Overcoming stagnation. In the folktales of many cultures, wearing a pair of shoes represented the journey toward putting an end to one’s strains. And sometimes they symbolized preparing for a sad event.
When a sun fell into the earth and a hidden choir began to sing, Harriet II, my grandmother, left the sacred house of her body, casting shadows on those she’d left behind. My mother had decided that she wanted her shoes back because she’d paid for them, and because I’d made a thousand graceful movements in them. She disturbed my peace because the wailing ghost of her mother was disturbing hers. She’d become lonely in the wild house of her mind, and said to me, ” I used to walk in our beautiful garden with those shoes . . . and now they have fallen in love with your feet. You’re not a saint. You don’t deserve such peace. ”
My grandmother dreamed of walls caving in on herself and Mama before she died, she said it meant their death. So she left my mother a wood coffin in her will. Nothing more. She’d left me the Mercer Street house. And everything in it. Before the funeral, when I’d gone to the house, I found my mother hiding inside the coffin. She’d said that the ceiling was collapsing, causing a big cloud of dust. “I had to climb in the damn thing,” she told me. “It would be an odd kind of death, don’t you think? . . . a beautiful woman like me found dead under the rubble of a collapsed ceiling.”
“Mama, the house is standing erect, and the ceiling is still right above your head.”
“You don’t see spirits the way I do, ” she croaked. “Never have! . . . damn demons have always been in this house.”
I had become short of breath watching her and I hoped that my tears somehow freed me. The trap of her world felt like a tomb. She was fluttering her arms like wings while she was talking, ‘ quit talking, ‘ the words were unspoken inside of me. Caged. She kept throwing wood on the fire of her hot-tempered grief, and I kept shedding tears, enduring the thorns of her mourning, burning myself to ashes, like a rose caught in a wildfire. While she was standing in front of me, her legs shaky, I stayed silent and put my hand to my face. I couldn’t believe that I was born from her, born from fire. “You’ve been lost in a masquerade your whole life,” she spewed. “And it’s clear you have no idea who the hell you are.” I kept waiting for her fire to burn out, but it wouldn’t. I’d come back home because I wanted to remember who I was.
Mama wouldn’t come to me when I reached for her. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “Give me your hand.”
She still stood next to the coffin, holding on to its shiny brass handle, as though she were nailed to it. “You’ve spent all your life running away from me . . . I don’t give a damn who adopted you, you are still my child.” She had dropped to her knees, her head touching the floor. “You’re my child!” she cried. “But no one ever understood that.”
“Is that why you gave me these shoes?” I said, removing them from my feet. I gave them to her, she held them tightly to her chest.
“What are you here for?”
“I’m here to give you the shoes.”
“That you have done,” she stated, rising to her feet. “Now get the hell out.”
At the funeral, Mama kept kissing and rubbing on her mother’s dead body. Partially lifting her and rocking her in her arms like a doll, screaming, “Mama. . . Mama!” Everyone there stood separately from the scene- because they feared her grief. And I stood separately from everyone. And her.
It was hot in the spectacle of death, on the stage of ten thousand idiots who mourned nothing, because they were too busy being secretly relieved that it wasn’t them in that coffin. A bird of paradise flew in from an open window and landed upon the coffin. But to those preferring the temporal existence of this world, it was only chirping. But I heard it sing like a choir, saying, “Ye thoughtless men, remember your Creator.” At the sound, my grandmother opened her eyes and tremored like an earthquake in her daughter’s arms. But no one saw it. Because they were too busy being secretly relieved that it wasn’t them that had died.
There were those who kept whispering that Harriet II had been assassinated, as though she were from some Shakespearean universe and hadn’t died a real death. “. . . by the government for her polemic views,” they kept saying. Their whispers made them even more detached and relieved. For none of the them would ever be assassinated. To the ‘everyone’s,’ her death was an out-of-place death.
In the world of whispers, the tremors broke the shell of my grandmother’s body and released her soul. One bird became two. And the wind blowing into the mosque that was once a Baptist church blew them away. None of them could see the absurdity of the whole thing; a Muslim funeral organized and attended by mourners who weren’t Muslim. The prayers for the dead were said incorrectly, by a man that had committed murder not once, but several times . . . and gotten away with it, or so he thought.
There were three unhidden things that I noticed. The first unhidden thing was that the mourners were unable to stand the temperature in the room; most kept beating paper fans against the suffocating air like the fluttering wings of birds stuck in mud. Some were snatching at the collars of their clothes. I had turned into a specter. They didn’t see me watching them bury themselves in a denial that was almost blasphemy. None of them wanted to see the truth before their eyes. And even more unhidden was that my mother was drunk, wearing shoes full of holes and a moth eaten rose colored dress, wailing like a ghost with her arms wrapped around a mother that could not hold her. And there were other figures who were stuck, faint gray outlines of dead loved ones looking back at everyone, trying to influence something or someone on earth.
My grandmother’s deceased sisters were there, including Helena, the one that had been murdered when Mama was pregnant with me. She’d been beaten to death by the husband of the eldest sister in a jealous rampage- she was the one that everyone said I looked like. My grandmother once told me that Helena used to sit with a big mirror and stare at herself obsessively. I was reminded of a verse from a Rumi poem, ‘If you are beautiful, your mirror is also beautiful. If you are ugly, your mirror inevitably shows your ugliness.’ Which did she see?
Notwithstanding, the thing that was most unhidden, was the fierce man called Save, that came in shouting, “Where’s my daughter . . . where’s my daughter.” It was a scene I’d witnessed before, at my great-grandfather’s funeral when I was sixteen. For some, the entire funeral service was a rare entertainment, and when they began to snicker, he yelled, ” Don’t be laughing in my face . . . don’t be laughing in my face! ” Others were so terrified by the crazy man with the shifty eyes, that while trying to get away, their paper fans struck the air and fell to the ground like birds with wounded wings. The performance had been cast and directed by one of my mother’s sisters, the middle sister, Storm, out of malice. Mama and Storm had an ongoing sibling rivalry so fueled by brimstone, that it could burn beneath water.
Mama dropped my grandmother’s body back in the coffin with a thud and came running toward me when she saw the wild man grab my hand. Pushing me away from him, she positioned herself between us like a partition, then she saved me from Save, when she said, ” She is not your daughter. ” It was the only truth she’d ever told.
A group of old women who were members of the Baptist church before it became a mosque, began to sing a song by one of my grandmother’s favorite gospel singers, Shirley Caesar; it was a negro spiritual about Jesus bearing the weight of the cross on his back. Their voices rose like a gift from our ancestors singing bones. The church-mosque became a theater of freedom, filled with the soft sounds of weeping and singing. Angels painted on the church-mosque sky woke into song like light-beings, and sunbeams filtered through stained glass windows burning away hidden hypocrisies- and I noticed that the perfect lyrics caused my mother’s foot to slip, as if she were frightened that she might be knocked down by the strike of Save. But when she said, “This is a time for standing,” I knew that she would not fall, although her body was trembling. And when she began singing, like a caged bird, I sang too.